Note:I was just over 1,800 words into the post you’re about to read when I finally admitted defeat; there is, quite simply, no way that I can fit everything I have to say about “Purple Rain” into a single, digestible piece of writing. So, in the grand tradition of my “Controversy” three-parter from 2018, I’m splitting it into chapters. The first, and likely longest, will talk about the song’s composition; the second will go into detail about its debut performance at First Avenue on August 3, 1983; and the third will delve into the final recording that appears on the Purple Rain album and film. There will probably also be a coda of some kind discussing the song’s impressive (and ongoing) afterlife. Basically, just think of July 2021 as my unofficial “Purple Rain” month–and, for the next several weeks, sit back and let me guide u through the purple rain.
It’s a sweltering August night at First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. Prince and his band have just returned to the stage for the first encore of their benefit show for the Minnesota Dance Theatre: the local dance company and school, located just up the street at 6th and Hennepin, where the musicians have been taking dance and movement classes to prepare for their imminent feature film debut. Moments earlier, MDT founder and artistic director Loyce Houlton thanked Prince with a hug, declaring, “We don’t have a ‘Prince’ in Minnesota, we have a king.” Before that, Prince had run the group through a fierce 10-song set: sprinkling a handful of crowd-pleasers amongst the largely new material, and ending with the biggest crowd-pleaser of all, his Number 6 pop hit “Little Red Corvette.”
No one in the sold-out crowd of around 1,500 recognizes the chords that now ring out from the darkened stage. Even the film’s director, Albert Magnoli, hasn’t heard the song before; it wasn’t among the tapes he’d reviewed to prepare for his draft of the screenplay. But the chords–played by 19-year-old guitarist Wendy Melvoin, in her first public performance with Prince–are immediately attention-grabbing: rich and colorful and uniquely voiced, somewhere between Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell.
A spotlight shines on Wendy as she continues to play, her purple Rickenbacker 330 echoed by her partner Lisa Coleman playing the same progression on electric piano. Prince begins to solo around the edges of the progression; he paces the stage, walking out to the edge of the crowd as he plays, then slings his “Madcat” Telecaster around his back and makes his way to the microphone at center stage. He holds the mic for an instant and backs away, as if suddenly overwhelmed. Then, he steps back to the mic and begins to sing: “I never meant 2 cause u any sorrow…”
Since the release of the Originals compilation last summer, Prince fans have been treated to a reasonably steady stream of officially-released material from the Vault. What we hadn’t had in a while, though, was a good old-fashioned bootleg leak–at least until last week, when the long-rumored 1977 track “Neurotic Lover’s Bedroom” was made available to a wider circle of collectors, then promptly shared on unofficial streaming sites (where, at least as of this writing, it remains accessible).
This news was especially exciting to me, as “Neurotic Lover” has long been one of my “holy grail” songs based purely on its title (see also: “Vagina,” “Big Brass Bed,” and for entirely different reasons, “Bulgaria”). I could not, for the life of me, imagine what a song called “Neurotic Lover’s Bedroom”–much less “Neurotic Lover’s Baby’s Bedroom,” the more grammatically bewildering title by which it was originally identified–could sound like; all I knew was, with a name like that, it had to be something good.
I am pleased to report that “Neurotic Lover” has both utterly defeated and exceeded these expectations. Whatever I imagined this track to be–and, again, beyond knowing that it was the first song Prince recorded after his manager Owen Husney bought him a drum machine, I really had no idea–it definitely was not a six-minute-long, vaguely psychedelic Parliament–Funkadelic goof in which a deadpan 19-year-old Prince extols the virtues of erotic asphyxiation. And yet, here we are.
Like the last roundup post for the 1999 album, this one has been an especially long time coming: I wrote my first “in-sequence” post on 1999-era ephemera way back in November of 2018, when we were all about 50 years younger. It didn’t help, of course, that last fall’s Super Deluxe Edition of 1999 dropped a bunch of new recordings into our collective laps (not that I’m complaining, of course!). With this post, though, I’m finally putting 1999 behind me (at least until a Super Super Deluxe Edition makes the current one obsolete). Purple Rain awaits. But first, my ranking of these odds ‘n’ sods:
15. “Colleen” If its abysmal showing in the Patreon polls that determined the order of the “bonus track” posts is any indication, my indifference to this funky, but slight instrumental is widely shared, at least among supporters of the blog. Also, Prince didn’t initially bother giving it a title… so, there’s that.
14. “Dance to the Beat” This forgotten missing link between the Time’s first and second albums isn’t bad, but neither is it anything to write home about; there’s presumably a reason why, at least to date, no studio recording seems to exist.
13. “You’re All I Want” This one made a very cute story (and a priceless birthday present!) for Peggy McCreary, and its hook led to another song you’ll see further up the list; on its own merits, though, I’d rank it as no better than “fine.”
11. “If It’ll Make U Happy” I really wanted the full version of this to do more for me after the leaked fragment left me slightly cold; but it’s really just more of what I’d already heard. A nice enough track, but I can see why it never found a proper home.
10. “You’re My Love” I know I’m not the only weirdo with a soft spot for this croonfest, later gifted to Kenny Rogers; but I’m definitely in the minority. That just makes my affection stronger.
9. “Don’t Let Him Fool Ya” Like I said in my original post, this is both a complete throwaway and an absolute banger. I can’t with good conscience rank it higher on this list, but what I can do is crank it in my car with my windows down on a sunny day.
8. “Vagina” I’ll admit that I may be ranking this a bit lower than it deserves, just because it failed to live up to my (arguably unrealistic) expectations; still a fascinating oddity of a song, and one of the highlights of 1999 Super Deluxe.
7. “No Call U” I went back and forth between giving the nod to this or the similar-toned “Don’t Let Him Fool Ya”; I ultimately went with this one on account of it having an actual chorus. Also, Jill Jones. I mean, am I right?
6. “Horny Toad” Sometimes I feel like the lone voice in the wilderness on this song, but like I said about “You’re My Love” above, that just makes me love it more. Or, as Prince put it, the more you scream, the nastier I get.
5. “Turn It Up” As always, the top five could basically be shuffled in any order and still be accurate; today, though, I’m leaning toward this being a great performance of a just-okay song.
4. “Purple Music (Welcome 2 the Freedom Galaxy)” Honestly, this track getting an official release pretty much justified 1999 Super Deluxe single-handedly. I envy the people who got to have their minds blown by it for the first time last November.
3. “Lust U Always (Divinity)” I know I’ve been relatively vocal about agreeing with the omission of this and “Extraloveable” from 1999 Super Deluxe, so my top-three ranking may come as a surprise; to that I can only say, look, I didn’t say I didn’t want to listen to it. The ultimate problematic fave.
2. “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” I may never be able to fathom the reverence granted by some to the Alicia Keys version; but the original, I totally get. Proof that even at his most stylistically polyglot, Prince continued to make essential R&B.
1. “Moonbeam Levels” This was technically the first 1982 outtake I wrote about, way back in 2016; so it felt like a milestone to finally reach it in my “proper” narrative. This was also one of the first Prince bootlegs I heard; you can probably thank (or blame) it for turning me into someone obsessive enough to try and write about every Prince song over a decade later.
So, there you have it. Tomorrow, my Alternate Timelines post about Prince’s path not taken after 1999 will be available for the general public. Next week, I’m hoping to have the long-delayed next episode of the podcast up for patrons, with the wider release to follow in early September. Also in early September, it’s back to the Purple Rain era with an updated post on “Electric Intercourse”: another track I wrote about at the time of its official release, but am now revisiting as I catch up to it chronologically.
In closing, I want to reiterate: I started 2020 at a creative low point, and I’m now heading toward 2021 feeling more inspired and invested in D / M / S / R than I’ve felt since this time four years ago. A lot of the credit for that turnaround goes to the people who continue to support the blog, whether formally through the Patreon or (just as importantly) simply by reading and caring about what I do. In particular, this week I want to shout out Arno, who joined the Patreon today; if this is, as I suspect, the same Arno who has been commenting on the blog, he’s one of the earliest supporters I can recall and someone who I really value as a reader, even without the added patronage (though, again, I appreciate that as well!). I didn’t get into this game to get rich or famous, but knowing that there are people out there who see value in what I do is a tremendous source of motivation. So thank you to everyone–past, present, and future–who is taking this journey with me.
Note: Please be advised that this post contains frank and uncensored discussion of lyrics which explicitly reference sexual assault.
There are any number of reasons why Prince may have left a given song in the Vault. There were, of course, the spatial limitations of recorded media: by 1982, Prince was producing more music than could be accommodated on two 12-inch sides of vinyl–hence why1999 ended up as a double album, and why his singles increasingly came backed with non-LP B-sides. There were instances where a certain song may have been deemed too similar to another that ended up making the cut on the album: see, for example, “Turn It Up,” which some believe was left off 1999 in favor of “Delirious.” There was also an even simpler explanation, per Prince himself: “If any track is unreleased, it’s because it’s not done,” he reportedly told Dan Piepenbring, the co-author of his unfinished memoir, in 2016 (Prince 2019 16).
The particular song Prince was discussing with Piepenbring was “Extraloveable,” a widely-bootlegged track recorded at the beginning of April 1982 and not officially released until 2011. Taking Prince at his word that the song wasn’t “done” until Andy Allo rapped on it, I won’t write about it until we get to that point in our chronology; but I will posit a theory that there was another reason why it didn’t see the light of day. As anyone who’s heard the original version can attest, the song takes a turn in the last minute and a half or so. After six minutes of gently cajoling the listener to take a bath with him, Prince suddenly becomes menacing: “I’m on the verge of rape,” he grunts, repeating himself for good measure. A blast of discordant synthesizer noise takes over the mix, as if the song itself has begun to malfunction. “I’m sorry,” Prince intones in his detached android voice over the ongoing din, “but I’m just gonna have to rape you. Now are you going to get into the tub, or do I have to drag you? Don’t make me drag you.”
Prince was obviously no stranger to aberrant expressions of sexuality at this point in his career: on “Horny Toad,” he had imagined himself as an obscene phone caller, a groper, and a stalker; perhaps most notably, “Sister” had described an incestuous relationship of dubious consent. But the former song was obviously played for laughs, while the latter crucially depicted Prince as the victim of abuse, not the perpetrator. Interrupting an exuberant, sexy frolic to outright threaten sexual violence was clearly a bridge too far, even in the thick of Prince’s “Rude Boy” era. Which makes it all the more surprising that he did it again with another unreleased track recorded in the same year, “Lust U Always.”
It’s difficult to pin down when the color purple took on the deep significance it would come to hold in Prince’s universe. The reference to a “purple lawn” in his 1976 song “Leaving for New York” was an interesting piece of trivia, but it felt more like an early attempt at Joni Mitchell-esque lyrical impressionism than the genuine birth of a motif. It wasn’t until much later, after the pastel pinks and blues of 1979’s Prince and the stark monochrome of 1980’s Dirty Mind, when the color began to show up in earnest. The album cover for 1981’s Controversy featured a lavender font, with Prince sporting one of his trademark studded trenchcoats in a matching color. And of course, at some point after he moved into his house on Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen, Prince had the exterior painted from its original cream color to an electric purple.
Whether the color’s importance to Prince was a recent development or a long-simmering fixation, it was on his fifth album that he finally shared it with the world. 1999 is rife with lyrical references to purple: it’s the color of the title track’s apocalyptic sky; the “rock” he invites listeners to “take a bite of” in “D.M.S.R.”; the “star in the night supreme” to which he compares his lover in “Automatic”; the promised “love-amour” and the “high” he craves in “All the Critics Love U in New York.” The artwork, too, is dominated by purples of all shades: from the deep royal purple of the background to the phallic, red-tinged shades of the lettering, to the cool violet tones of the inner sleeve photo of Prince with his backing band. Yet not even this veritable explosion of purple makes as clear a statement as another song, recorded on May 22, 1982 and titled simply “Purple Music.”